I enter a space on the second floor of an office building. The room is carpeted and bare, with just some folding chairs in rows and nothing else. About 20 people have shown up for the past-life regression. We go around the room and people ask questions and say what they expect. One young woman says she wants to know in which life she belongs; she doesn’t think she is in the right place in time. She’s ready for this life to be over and get on to the next. I’m a little surprised that the moderator doesn’t seem startled by this blatantly suicidal statement, but maybe she recognizes it as bluster.
We all get comfortable and close our eyes. A long series of hypnotic relaxation exercises unfolds. The first life we see will be our most spiritual life. I follow along and fall deeper into relaxation, forgetting the room around me and the people nearby. I step out of a window into the past. Part of my mind senses that I am going through the motions, but I do see the window, so I step.
I am in a field, in the middle of the night. There is bright moonlight around me. My body is firm and round, naked under a linen-type fabric. I gather plants, leaning down and collecting. I feel peaceful. I enter a tent where a fire burns and a young girl is laid out on a raised platform. I am heartbroken when I see her. I feel there is not a family connection, that she was perhaps an apprentice, but I love her deeply. I step aside and grind up the plants that I have collected, and go about anointing the girl, on her forehead, on her throat, and down her body. When I am finished, I am wracked with sorrow.
I step outside the tent bereft. I tilt my head to the moonlit sky. I see a star. It grows bigger until bright white light fills my eyes and a ball of it speeds down in an instant, a shooting star, aimed for me. It enters the top of my head and as it radiates down I am filled with an infinite feeling of love and joy, beyond any earthly feeling. Time stands still as my self falls away and I am washed in love, a love so expansive and yet so personal, so tender. When the light reaches my feet it bounces back up, flying up through my body as if I’ve just been checked off. As the light ascends I feel the girl’s spirit and her limitless love for me. I know I have helped her spirit to leave through the pathways I marked with the anointing. I know this all in an instant.
Years later, I am riding the hour from the Dallas Greyhound station to a meditation center with a stranger, a man who is attending the retreat as well. He seems in his late 50s, very straight-laced and business-y, but with a soft center that I get an inkling of. He had manufactured ammunition for the government for a living. How did he come to find Vipassana? I ask.
At the bedside of his dying father, he leans over to kiss his father on the forehead. As his lips touch the skin, a light shoots into him, filling him up with all the infinite joy and love of the universe, a feeling beyond any earthly feeling. The light flows to his feet, fills him up, and then leaves from the top of him, checks him off. He recognizes this as his father’s spirit leaving his body, and feels his father's expansive love. He decides it’s time to investigate some other ways of being in the world.
So now death is this to me: the light and love we are made of flying at the speed of light to mix with the infinite love that is at the center of everything. We go back into the infinite consciousness that animates existence. Or I should say, the infinite consciousness we always are lets go of this illusion of life.
Recently, it occurred to me that I don’t think I’m afraid of death anymore. I had that thought and then I immediately threw that thought away. How could I possibly live without the fear that every person walks in, that is a defining part of the human condition? Why did I think I was special?
My neighbor was gravely ill, a wonderful, funny, open, vibrant, kind, spectacular human being. I asked to see her, and I traveled to the hospital. As I was driving I told myself, okay, here you go. You will be face to face with the sorrow and tragedy of a person dying too young. The grief of the family. The fear of the unknown. Your ideas are not realistic and are actually an insult to those grieving.
I stepped into the room and saw her there, looking so small in the hospital bed. A love filled me that was so overwhelming I fought back tears. Not tears of sorrow, but tears at the realization that she would be the one to prove this dizzying absence of fear. I was overwhelmed with the infinite joy that met me when I walked into that room. I cry now when I think of losing her. I feel the grief of her family who lost such a light so young. I remember how sad she was when she finally knew it was the end and that there was so much more to do and it breaks my human heart. But these feelings aren’t as deep as this truly peaceful one: Nancy is in bliss. She was a joyful and light person in life. And in her leaving, she gave me even more proof of our eternal spark. What a gift.
We die and become the light of infinite consciousness. The joke is that we are that light already and we never stop being it. Death is just the release back into it, fully. Some lucky people get to recognize that this light is always there inside of us, and they figure out how to access it any time, to live in it. Most of us, we think living in that light only happens in special circumstances, times of great religiosity or deep meditation or all sorts of twists and turns we have to undertake to get there. The big joke is that it’s always there, lying underneath the ego, underneath this “me” we identify with.
Buddhists say it’s like looking at a cloudy lake. The reflection of the moon is always shining in the center of that lake, it’s just that the unrest of the human experience keeps that lake too chaotic for us to see it. But the light is always right there.
The thing that I never say, is that I believe that everyone is this light. The idea that there are lost or evil people is very real, but what I feel then is a deep empathy. What a hell it must be to live in a way that takes you so far from the bliss of the light that you are. I look at a baby and I think, every baby is the bliss of a star. How heartbreakingly tragic it is that some people spin so far away from that perfect truth and love.
I guess that’s almost blasphemy these days, to feel sorrow for the terrorist, the shooter, the cruel, the evil. I am like everyone and wonder if there isn’t some kind of cosmic payback or judgment or punishment. When I am angry and afraid, I want there to be. A lot of my time though, I think, what kind of punishment must it be on Earth, to be born in such light and to drift so far from it, into misery. What kind of misery would I have to be in to harm anyone? To harm an innocent being? I can find no better definition of hell.
I love this story:
A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk.
He barked, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience.
"Teach me about heaven and hell!"
The monk looked up at the mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain,
"Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn't teach you about anything. You're dumb. You're dirty. You're a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can't stand you."
The samurai got furious. He shook, red in the face, speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword, and prepared to slay the monk.
Looking straight into the samurai's eyes, the monk said softly,
The samurai froze, realizing the compassion of the monk who had risked his life to show him hell! He put down his sword and fell to his knees, filled with gratitude.
The monk said softly,
"And that's heaven."
They are both made of love. They are both bodies — like suitcases — protecting a burning ember, the light of infinite consciousness. I choose to emulate the monk, working to constantly deepen my empathy even in the face of the worst injustices. I weep for the samurai, and work to release all of my own samurai tendencies.
There is that joke again. We can work all we want. The work is already done.
We can awaken and live in that light that rests in the pool of the heart. When I sit at my instrument, I’ll fall into that center and let the music play me. As I move through life, I’ll stumble, but do my best to meet every difficult situation from a place of peace and compassion, to understand rather than react. I’ll continue to envision humanity on a path to create a world where all challenges are met first from love. When I feel the sunlight on my skin, I’ll close my eyes and know that the kiss of our star in this moment in time is a reminder that in the absence of fear, this warmth is what endures.